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Mary Somerville

A Polymath and writer, Mary Sommerville was the first person ever to be referred to as a Scientist.

 

Born in 1780 the fifth of seven children. As a child Mary received very little education, being taught to read, but not write by her Mother. This was in keeping with the societal norms of the day which was that women didn’t need to be educated.

 

Mary, however had an insatiable hunger for knowledge, reading any book she could find, going so far as to teach herself Latin. Her family frowned upon her love of reading and learning, all except for her Uncle, who once he knew Mary had taught herself Latin encouraged her. The two of them would read Latin together before breakfast.

 

When Mary was 13 her family rented a house in Edinburgh. During this time Mary was given lessons in painting by the artist Alexander Nasmyth. One day she overheard him explaining to another pupil that Eculid’s Elements formed the basis for understanding perspective, as well as many other sciences. This comment sparked her fascination with mathematics.

 

She became so fascinated with the study that her parents became worried about her health. Her father reportedly believing that the strain of abstract thought would injure the tender female frame.

 

When she was 24 she married Samuel Greig. Grieg had a low opinion of women’s intelligence and believed that they shouldn’t be interested in academic matters. She wrote “He had a very low opinion of the capacity of my sex, and had neither knowledge of, nor interest in, science of any kind.”. Just 3 years into their marriage Samuel died leaving Mary with an inheritance, some private wealth to be able to pursue her studies independently. This new found independence lead to her winning prizes for her mathematical solutions.

 

In 1812 she remarried William Somerville. Somerville encouraged Mary and studied Geology with her. Her husband was elected to the Royal Society, which threw Mary into contact with many of the finest minds in the country.

 

In 1826 Mary published her first paper. This was closely followed by her first published book; The Mechanism of the Heavens which was an immediate success. She went on to spend about a year abroad in 1832-33. Working on her next book The connection of the physical sciences which was published in 1834. Her discussion of a hypothetical planet perturbing Uranus in the sixth edition (1842) of this work led John Couch Adams to his investigation and subsequent discovery of Neptune.

 

Recognition now came thick and fast. In 1835 she was elected to the Royal Astronomical Society and given honorary membership of the Société de Physique et d'Histoire Naturelle de Genève, and the Royal Academy.

 

She was a strong supported of Women’s Suffrage. Her name was the first signatory on the failed parliamentary petition by John Stuart Mill.

 

By her death at the age of 91 she was widely renowned as the most remarkable woman of her generation. Famously she once wrote; “Sometimes I find [mathematical problems] difficult, but my old obstinacy remains, for if I do not succeed today, I attack them again on the morrow.”